Mar. 19, 2012
BOSTON — Mar. 6, 2007, was a day of panic for the 350 undocumented workers as federal agents raided the Bianco factory. The manufacturing company had hired the workers at minimum wage to do work such as sewing and stitching on leather goods. Shortly after the morning break, agents stormed the factory, handcuffing and leading away hundreds. Many were sent out of the country. It was one of the largest such raids in U.S. history.
At the time, many local organizations stepped forward to help the workers. One man even contributed $100,000 of his own money toward their bail. That man is Bob Hildreth, a Boston banker, and it was the start of a new mission for him. Five years later, he continues to provide money and support to the local immigrant community.
After the raid, he saw people scramble together funds. That triggered an idea, he said: "If you can do that for bail, maybe you can do that for education."
As for his interest in the community, Hildreth credited his experience in Latin America working in banking. "I was treated with tremendous cariño — with tremendous care," he said.
So he created Families United in Educational Leadership or FUEL, an organization that matches a family’s savings set aside for their children’s education.
"We now have about 400 families who have taken up that challenge," he said.
Take, for example, Betty Jimenez and her daughter Thalia Pliego, who work side by side at the same café in downtown Boston. Jimenez heard about FUEL through a friend and decided the support would help her provide her daughter a different life than the one she had in her hometown of Medellín, Colombia.
"I graduated from high school. [But] I didn’t have the opportunity to continue my studies because I didn’t have the resources and now FUEL is a resource for my daughter," Jimenez said in Spanish.
Families such as the Jimenezes often "lack the tools to get their kids into college," Hildreth said, so FUEL brings them together once a month for a "Savings Circle" for support.
Pliego now does have the opportunity to go to college. With the support of her mother and money from FUEL, she attends Bunker Hill Community college on a scholarship. She feels part of her mission is to fight against stereotypes of Latinos.
"We’re not hard-working, supposedly, although I wake up at 5 o’clock in the morning to go to work and all I ever see on the bus is Latinos," she said. "You don’t catch your business people in there. The suit type of people, yeah, you don’t see those guys on the bus."
Jimenez added, "Some might say that if a person is from somewhere else, they aren’t worth anything, but we all have the same value."
Hildreth’s FUEL program has helped finance the education of more than 400 students — to a dollar amount, Hildreth estimated, in the millions.
Jimenez had this message for him:
"I am thankful to you for all the opportunities you give the students, especially those who come from other countries, and especially since my children are in your program. So thank you on behalf of all of us and all those you help in your life," she said.